The Media Today

How to count half a million lost lives?

February 23, 2021

Last March, amid the myriad upheavals and uncertainties that marked early pandemic life, various scientists and public health officials started to model out how many cases and deaths we might be looking at in the long run, and the press, unsurprisingly, took great interest in their work. A team at Imperial College, in London, concluded that the coronavirus could kill upwards of two million people in the US alone should it be allowed to spread unchecked. That number spread like wildfire in headlines (usually alongside the worst-case caveat). On March 29, CNN’s Jake Tapper asked Dr. Anthony Fauci, a new household name, to lay down some predictions; Fauci replied that, with mitigation, the US was likely looking at between one- and two hundred thousand deaths, though he also stressed that such projections aren’t especially helpful. Later the same day, then-president Trump said that if deaths were to end up in the range that Fauci cited, it would mean that “we altogether have done a very good job.” The next morning, Dr. Deborah Birx went on Today and said that that range would apply even “if we do things almost perfectly”; the day after that, she raised the upper bound to two hundred and forty thousand deaths. The projection continued to drive coverage across the media, as did a debate about its reliability. Outside experts said they had no idea how the White House had arrived at its numbers, since it hadn’t published any underlying data. The White House said it wasn’t publishing its models out of respect for the “confidentiality of the modelers.”

In the months that followed, the Trump administration did not do a very good job, and the hypotheticals hardened into grim reality. The US surpassed one hundred thousand confirmed deaths, in May, then two hundred thousand confirmed deaths, in September. News organizations responded to each milestone with visualizations that attempted to drive home the scale of the loss—a tapestry of one-line obituaries; a cover bordered with black trim. Yesterday, the five hundred thousandth death was confirmed, and we saw similar tributes. On its front page on Sunday, the New York Times represented each death with a dot and graphed them over time; the density of the resulting image thickened from months that resembled flocks of starlings to, more recently, weeks of almost-solid black smudge. The Washington Post simply led with the number “500,000,” calling it “almost too large to grasp.” Last night, Tapper hosted a prime-time memorial service on CNN, reprising a special that the network aired at the one-hundred-thousand mark. Around that time, I wrote that pegging memorialization to big round numbers felt inadequate and arbitrary. It still does, but at this point, so many deaths have gone unremarked that if big round numbers offer a peg for some reflection, so be it. Not that the milestones we’ve marked have actually been round—undercounting means that each has already long passed by the time official statistics catch up. That, too, is still the case.

New from CJR: They won the Alaska newspaper giveaway. Then the pandemic arrived.

When we say that deaths have gone unremarked, that’s a collective statement; each death, of course, has been felt by innumerable loved ones, colleagues, and medical caregivers. In between the yardsticks and splashy covers, news organizations at every level have tried to humanize the mounting toll by dwelling, however briefly, on the lives of individual victims, be it in obituaries, end-of-the-hour cable news segments, or the occasional deeply reported package. Still, it goes without saying that the press has not been able to give each lost life its due. Nor has the urgency of our coverage risen and fallen in proportion to the rise and fall of the death rate. The blackest bar on the Times’ front-page graph spans the two weeks or so before Trump left office—coinciding almost exactly with an insurrection from which the nation could not look away. Even yesterday’s milestone felt, in some respects, like just another news story. While waiting for Joe Biden to host a vigil, CNN ran a segment investigating low occupancy rates at Trump’s DC hotel; some of the prime-time shows on MSNBC led with other stories, including the ongoing fallout from the coup.

There are plenty of possible reasons for this, some better than others. The media, specifically, privileges novelty and graphic shock value over relentless, slow-moving catastrophe that we can’t easily see firsthand. As the psychologist Paul Slovic told NPR recently, all of us, as humans, are susceptible to “psychic numbing”; our emotions, he said, “aren’t good at quantitative assessment. Our feelings are energized by a single individual at risk, what we call a ‘singularity effect,’ ” but “the more who die, the less we care.” Singularity is easy enough to demonstrate statistically, using dots on a chart, but statistics don’t reliably move us; individual stories can, but again, the telling of individual stories during a mass-casualty event is, in some ways, a discriminatory practice—albeit a necessary one—when each life lost carries equal weight. Nor can the story of the pandemic be reduced to deaths alone. As I wrote last March, it’s an “everything story”; it has since so thoroughly restructured every aspect of our lives that it is impossible to grant it the flat somberness of tone that proportion would seem to demand. Low occupancy at Trump’s DC hotel is a pandemic story, too.

Coverage of the five-hundred-thousand mark has often sought to balance the pain with a positive that has brightened many a pandemic story in recent weeks—the fact that cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are all in decline in the US. The covid Tracking Project wrote last week that we are starting to see “solid declines in deaths correlated with covid-19 vaccinations” among the most vulnerable population; as far as case counts go, we are still reckoning with impediments to adequate testing, not least last week’s massive winter storm, but, as The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson wrote a week ago, “the share of regional daily tests that are coming back positive has declined even more than the number of cases.” The trend, he wrote, “is crystal clear.”

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Even this clarity, however, can feel hard to process. On the principle that each life lost is a unique tragedy, each life saved should also carry great weight—even if news stories will logically center tragedies that happened ahead of those that were averted. It is also important to note that we are still talking, here, about shockingly high baseline numbers—the Tracking Project wrote last week, for instance, that while hospitalizations had fallen “very sharply,” they had “yet to fall far enough to reach even the peaks of the two previous surges.” Pandemics are clearly dynamic events, and covering trend lines is crucial. But we must strike an appropriate balance, here, with absolute figures. A death is a death, whether it happens on the way up or down a statistical curve.

On June 30, Fauci addressed a Senate committee and shared another projection: new daily covid cases, he warned, could soon top one hundred thousand if Americans didn’t take measures to stop the spread. His warning made the front page of the Times, and was the top story on NBC’s and CBS’s evening newscasts; NBC called it “stark,” as did CNN, which also called it “dire.” Since then, of course, we’ve consistently seen daily case counts well beyond Fauci’s warning, and yet these actual cases have not always been covered with “stark” or “dire” urgency. The day Fauci spoke to senators in June, the US recorded more than forty-eight thousand new cases and five hundred seventy-nine new deaths. Yesterday, there were fifty-three thousand new cases and one thousand two hundred thirty-five new deaths. These numbers all add up to our milestones, regardless of the direction we’re headed.

Below, more on the pandemic:

  • A year in review: Yesterday, the Pew Research Center published a report based on a year’s worth of research into Americans’ news-consumption habits and attitudes toward the media. Among other conclusions, Pew researchers found a partisan split in views of covid coverage. “Over time, Republicans’ responses shifted on a number of covid-19-related issues. Generally speaking, they paid less attention to the coverage, became more critical of the media and grew more likely to say the pandemic was being exaggerated,” they write. “Conversely, Democrats’ responses on those issues—which in most cases differed from the Republicans’—remained largely unchanged over time.”
  • Filling in the picture, I: Vaccine equity remains a pressing concern—available data, Politico reports, “continues to show that people in hard-hit minority communities are getting vaccinated at a much slower pace than people in wealthier white ones.” Since the rollout began, large swaths of vaccination data have omitted race and ethnicity information, making it hard to assess the scale of the problem. The data remains limited, though “in one hopeful sign, thirty-four states are now reporting race and ethnicity data, double the seventeen from a month ago, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.”
  • Filling in the picture, II: Yesterday, the LA Times launched a Spanish-language version of its coronavirus data tracker, nearly a year after launching the English-language version. The paper said in a press release that the new initiative reflects its “commitment to increasing its Spanish-language news coverage,” as well as “the disproportionate toll the pandemic has been taking on the Latino community.”
  • Light relief: Spare a thought for editors at the Daily Campus, the student paper at the University of Connecticut, where students are presumably not one hundred percent keen to catch covid again.

Other notable stories:

  • Earlier today, Facebook pledged to restore access to news content in Australia “in the coming days” after the country’s government agreed to tweak the terms of a new law that would force the platform to pay news providers; as the Times reports, officials appear to have granted Facebook more time to strike its own deals with publishers “while continuing to hold the hammer of final arbitration over the company’s head.” Facebook’s news blackout, which has been in place for nearly a week, also swept up pages linked to emergency services and nonprofits, and, as Sheldon Chanel reported for The Guardian, hit hard among poorer communities in the broader Pacific region, where many cellphone data plans offer cheap access to Facebook but not to news websites. Elsewhere, Microsoft said yesterday that it will work with publishers in Europe to lobby for Australian-style policies targeting Google and Facebook there.
  • Yesterday, the Supreme Court rejected Trump’s efforts to withhold his tax returns and other financial records from prosecutors in New York, who will finally now get their hands on the documents following a protracted fight. A different decision offered better news for the former president, as the court declined to reopen an unsuccessful defamation case that Trump’s onetime lover Stormy Daniels filed against him. In other defamation news, Dominion Voting Systems, a tech company that was swept up in Trumpworld’s rampant election lies, is suing Mike Lindell, the MyPillow CEO who amplified the lies via various media channels. The suit alleges that Lindell defamed Dominion “to sell more pillows.”
  • CJR’s Lauren Harris explores what happened after Larry Persily, the former owner of the Skagway News, in Alaska, decided to give the paper away, right before the pandemic hit last year. The new owners, Melinda Munson and Gretchen Wehmhoff, relocated to Skagway from the Anchorage area, where they worked as teachers, in early March; soon after, the border between the US and Canada closed, severing the Skagway News from its printing press and forcing Munson and Wehmhoff to pivot suddenly to digital.
  • Slate suspended Mike Pesca, who hosts its podcast The Gist, after he argued, on the company’s Slack channel, that white people should be allowed to say the N-word in some contexts. Kelsey McKinney reports, for Defector, that Pesca has made similar points—and used the word itself—at work before. Slate staffers told McKinney that they are worried about “the culture that allowed him to feel bold enough to say these things.”
  • The Marshall Project and FiveThirtyEight calculated what various cities are paying out in police-misconduct settlements. “The data mostly left us with more questions than answers,” they write. “Shoddy, confusing, or incomplete record-keeping combined with a host of other local factors to make it nearly impossible for us to conclude if anything was changing in any given city—much less whether those shifts were for better or worse.”
  • For The Objective, Simon Galperin took a critical look at the Knight Foundation, a prolific nonprofit funder of journalism initiatives that, Galperin writes, has ties to “right-wing extremism.” It is hard for journalists to criticize Knight due to its influence in the industry, Galperin argues, but “its behavior—from its speaker lineups to its grant-making to its board of trustees and endowment—is actively undermining its mission and grantees.”
  • Pocket Outdoor Media, a company that owns various active-living publications and tech assets, is acquiring the parent company of Outside magazine and will rename itself after Outside; it is also acquiring Outside TV and Peloton magazine, which covers cycling, as well as two new tech investments. Sara Fischer, of Axios, reports that “the deals will add around 180 people to the company’s roughly 240-person existing employee base.”
  • The journalist Greg Donahue is out with Hardy/Friedland, an audiobook telling the story of David Hardy, a reporter who sued his employer, the New York Daily News, for racial discrimination in a landmark case while simultaneously chasing “the scoop of a lifetime,” about a New Jersey state senator who faked his own death. (In 2018, I spoke with Donahue about his fascinating reporting on the journalist and criminal Ron Porambo.)
  • And Spotify launched Renegades: Born in the USA, an eight-episode podcast series featuring conversations between Barack Obama and Bruce Springsteen. The company announced other podcasts that it has in the works, including Tell Them I Am, featuring stories from Muslim voices, and a project on police brutality from Ava DuVernay.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.